MiG-21: The Old Russian Fighter That Just Won't Retire (Nearly 11,000 Built)

MiG-21
November 26, 2023 Topic: military Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Mig-21USSRSoviet Air ForceCold WarCold War HistoryAviation

MiG-21: The Old Russian Fighter That Just Won't Retire (Nearly 11,000 Built)

Despite some of the improvements the MiG-21 featured, the fighter had a pretty poor air-to-air kill tally. During Operation Desert Storm, Iraq lost four Fishbeds to American fighters. 

 

Meet the MiG-21: The Soviet Union’s first truly advanced second-generation fighter jet continues to serve several countries nearly seven decades after it first flew the skies. Many airframes across the globe have emerged and retired over their service lifetimes.

However, the MiG-21 remains an exception to this rule. Since fighter platforms continuously improve in order to compete with near-peers, they rarely exist for the number of years the USSR’s “Fishbed” airframe has achieved. 

 

Introducing the MiG-21 platform

Although given the moniker “Fishbed” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the MiG-21 was not a joke of an airframe.

As outlined by military expert Stephan Wilkinson, “The Soviets hated [the name], just as they hated Fagot, Faithless, Frogfoot and other Western names for their fighters. The MiG-21 had no official Russian identifier, but its popular handle was Balalaika, after the triangular folk instrument—an obvious reference to the MiG’s delta wing.” 

The MiG-21 was derived from earlier Soviet fighter platforms, including the MiG-15, MiG-17, and MiG-19.

In the mid-1950s, Soviet manufacturer Mikoyan completed a study for a jet prototype designated “Ye-1.” While the USSR’s earlier MiG-19 gave the Soviets a supersonic platform, aerial advancements during this time period essentially rendered these once top-of-the-line platforms useless. 

Specs and Capabilities 

As the USSR’s first successful airframe combining fighter and interceptor characteristics, the Fishbed represented a new era of capabilities for the Soviets. The fighter could achieve speeds of Mach 2 (two times the speed of sound) with a considerable low-powered afterburning turbojet. These abilities put the MiG-21 in line with the American F-5 Freedom Fighter, the F-104 Starfighter, and the French Dassault Mirage III

Weapons-wise, the MiG-21 could carry an internal cannon and between two-to-six missiles, although this airframe actually preceded the missiles into service. The Fishbed had a short range, similar to other interceptors designed at the time. 

Between the 1950s and the mid-1980s, the USSR would produce more than 10,000 MiG-25s. Czechoslovakia and India also contracted more than 800 Fishbeds combined under licensing and technology transfer agreements. 

Despite some of the improvements the MiG-21 featured, the fighter had a pretty poor air-to-air kill tally. During Operation Desert Storm, Iraq lost four Fishbeds to American fighters. 

Christian Orr summed up why the MiG-21s performed poorly in an earlier piece: “Setting aside the superior training and technologies of the American and Israeli aircrews and airframes, at least part of this can be chalked up to inherent weakness in the Fishbed’s design. For starters there was the near-useless onboard radar, as only a small dish would fit into the jet’s airflow-slowing nose cone. It also had an extremely limited fuel capacity, typically only 45 minutes’ worth. To make matters worse, the Fishbed could not be dead-sticked to a landing if fuel ran out while near its airbase, since a power-on approach was required.”

The failure of the USSR’s MiG-21 Fishbed fighters in the Middle East indicated to the rest of the world that Soviet fighters were losing steam in the country’s aerial competition against the U.S.

However, the MiG-21s still flew in roughly forty other air forces and continue to serve eighteen across the globe.

Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.

All images are Creative Commons.